A Nagoya hospital started the first clinical trials in regenerative medicine on patients in Japan with the skin condition known as vitiligo, which is characterized by patches of skin losing their pigmentation over time.

Starting in July, Nagoya City University Hospital has been cultivating skin cells and grafting the resultant epidermal cell sheets to affected areas of the patients. The hospital is trying to determine the efficacy of the transplants and aiming to have the treatments covered under medical insurance.

The goal is to improve the quality of life of patients who might suffer psychological stress or social stigmatization as a result of the condition, in which white patches appear on the skin.

“We can treat a wide area (of the body) compared with the conventional method of directly grafting a patient’s skin,” said Kazuhiro Toriyama, a professor of plastic surgery at the hospital. “Even after the procedure is done, there is the merit that unevenness of the skin surface and the shades of color don’t stand out.”

The condition, which has no known cure and causes that are typically unknown, results in the destruction of pigment cells. Melanin, which protects the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays, is unable to be produced. The patches often begin on areas exposed to the sun.

Although stress is seen as a cause, multiple factors are often suggested to play a role in the disease. About 0.5 to 1 percent of Japan’s population contract the skin disorder. Conventional treatment of the disease usually involves applying steroids.

Skin grafts covered under insurance are typically performed on patients with severe burns or people with blackish-brown birthmarks called “giant congenital nevus,” which increase the risk of skin cancers. But vitiligo is not covered.

The procedure involves removing a small sample of skin about the size of a postage stamp from the patient’s underarm or other body parts.

Epidermal cell sheets are cultivated by Japan Tissue Engineering Co., a company based in Gamagori, Aichi Prefecture, that specializes in product manufacturing for the regenerative medicine business. Skin grafts are performed at the hospital in the prefecture.

At a minimum, treatments cost about ¥500,000 (about $4,500), all of which is charged to the patient. But after conducting about 20 treatments, the hospital plans to make a request to the health ministry that part of the treatments be covered by insurance under advanced medical care.

The hospital hopes continued treatments will lead to full insurance coverage.

According to multiple reports, an autopsy of the late pop singer Michael Jackson in 2009 confirmed Jackson’s claim that he had suffered from vitiligo universalis, an extreme form of the disease in which little pigmentation remains.

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